MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Hundreds of activists and Indigenous leaders rallied outside the White House on Tuesday to support Leonard Peltier on the imprisoned activist's 79th birthday, holding signs and chanting slogans urging President Joe Biden to grant clemency to the Native American leader.
Peltier is serving life in prison for the killing of two FBI agents during a 1975 standoff on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He was convicted in 1977.
Key figures involved in Peltier’s prosecution have stepped forward over the years to urge his release, rally organizers said, including the judge who presided over Peltier’s 1986 appeal and the former U.S. attorney whose office handled the prosecution and appeal.
Tuesday's rally kicked off with chanting and drumbeats. Organizers delivered impassioned speeches about Peltier's life and his importance as a Indigenous leader, punctuated by shouts of “Free Peltier! Free Peltier!”
The rally’s organizers said Peltier wrote a statement, which was read aloud in front of the White House, in which he thanked the people who have pushed for his release.
“I hope to breathe free air before I die. Hope is a hard thing to hold, but no one is strong enough to take it from me,” Peltier wrote. “There is a lot of work left to do. I would like to get out and join you in doing it.”
“Forty-eight years is long enough,” said Nick Tilsen, president of NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led advocacy group that co-organized the rally with Amnesty International USA.
Amnesty considers Peltier a political prisoner, and organizers said a United Nations working group on arbitrary detention specifically noted the anti-Indigenous bias surrounding Peltier’s detention.
“We are calling on the Biden administration, who has made it a choice — has made Indigenous civil rights a priority — for his administration, yet he allows and continues to allow the longest incarcerated political prisoner in the United States,” Tilsen said.
Over 100 people journeyed by bus and caravan for three days from South Dakota to the District of Columbia to support Peltier’s release, NDN Collective said in a Facebook post. Speakers at the rally included “Reservation Dogs” actor Dallas Goldtooth, President of the National Congress of American Indians Fawn Sharp and other Indigenous leaders.
While Peltier's supporters argue he was wrongly convicted of killing FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams, the agency has maintained that he is guilty and was properly sentenced to two consecutive life terms.
“Peltier intentionally and mercilessly murdered these two young men and has never expressed remorse for his ruthless actions,” the FBI said in an email Monday, adding that the conviction “has withstood numerous appeals to multiple courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Peltier has exhausted his opportunities for appeal and his parole requests have been denied. In 2017, then-President Barack Obama denied a clemency request by Peltier.
An enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa tribe, Peltier was active in the American Indian Movement, which began in the 1960s a local organization in Minneapolis that sought to grapple with issues of police brutality and discrimination against Native Americans. It quickly became a national force.
AIM grabbed headlines in 1973 when it took over the village of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge reservation, leading to a 71-day standoff with federal agents. Tensions between AIM and the government remained high for years, providing the backdrop for the fatal confrontation in which both agents were shot in the head at close range.
The White House has been quiet on whether Biden would even consider clemency for Peltier, given the FBI’s opposition. But members of Biden's own cabinet, including Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, have pushed for Peltier's release in the past.
“Congress hasn’t weighed in on this issue in years,” Haaland posted on social media in 2020, citing concerns about COVID-19. “At 75 with chronic health issues, it is urgent that we #FreeLeonardPeltier.”
At the time, Haaland was a congresswoman. She is now the first Native American to lead a Cabinet department in the U.S.
Trisha Ahmed is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow her on X, formerly known as Twitter: @TrishaAhmed15